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Bin Laden's death upends agenda for first Republican presidential debate

May 05, 2011|By Michael A. Memoli
(Fox News )

Reporting from Washington — Polls show that Americans' top concern is the economy, but the killing of Osama bin Laden put foreign policy at the top of the agenda in the first Republican candidates debate of the 2012 presidential campaign.

In the forum, broadcast by Fox News from Greenville, S.C., a quintet of lesser-known candidates offered their views on the operation that killed the Al Qaeda leader and how it might affect America's mission in Afghanistan.

Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, praised President Obama for "being decisive" in launching the raid on Bin Laden's compound, but attacked his broader foreign policy outlook.

"He's made a number of other decisions relating to our security here and around the world that I don't agree with," he said. "If it turns out that many of the techniques that he criticized during the campaign led to Osama bin Laden's being identified and killed, he should be asked to explain whether he does or does not support those techniques."

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who just announced the formation of an exploratory committee a day earlier, downplayed what he said was simply a "tactical decision" by Obama.

"If you look at what President Obama has done right in foreign policy, it has always been a continuation of the Bush policies," he said. "The issues that have come up while he is president, he's gotten it wrong strategically every single time."

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a libertarian-minded Republican long opposed to the war in Afghanistan, said Bin Laden's death showed the folly of keeping the war going.

"Boy, it is a wonderful time for this country now to reassess it and get the troops out of Afghanistan, and end that war that hasn't helped us and hasn't helped anyone in the Middle East," he said.

That view was echoed by former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who called for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces.

"We're building roads, schools, bridges and highways in Iraq and Afghanistan and we're borrowing 43 cents on every dollar to do that. In my opinion, this is crazy," he said.

A fifth candidate, Herm Cain, criticized a lack of clarity in the mission, but admitted to not being well-briefed enough on these issues to offer his own strategy going forward.

"I'm not privy to a lot of confidential information. One of the things that I've always prided myself on is making an informed decision knowing all the facts," he said.

The initial exchange in this first debate shows just how the operation against Bin Laden has temporarily upended the 2012 campaign. Obama is enjoying a bump in his poll numbers, though voters still give him low marks for handling the economy.

That issue did not come up for at least 15 minutes in the debate. Pawlenty used a question on jobs to attack the National Labor Relations Board for blocking an effort by Boeing to build a South Carolina plant, to the delight of the audience.

But when the subject turned to healthcare, he resisted an opportunity to criticize Mitt Romney for the universal health plan he signed into law in Massachusetts.

"Gov. Romney's not here to defend himself, so I'm not going to pick on him," he said.

The debate became the first of the primary season after NBC News and Politico rescheduled one that would have taken place Tuesday at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.

Using data from a new Quinnipiac University poll, the five candidates' support combined would be just 11%, good for fifth place among national Republican voters surveyed.

CNN is hosting a June 7 debate in New Hampshire, which may draw more participants.

michael.memoli@latimes.com

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